Oftentimes the most frightening aspect of being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is its unpredictability. No one knows how they will feel from one day to the next, let alone one month to the next.
According to the National MS Society, more than 2.3 million people have MS. The typical person has about a 1 in 750 chance of developing MS, but someone with a family history or other risk factors are more likely to get it. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, you may not only be scared but also may have a multitude of questions to ask.
What is MS?
MS is thought to be an immune-mediated disorder, in which the immune system attacks healthy tissue in the central nervous system causing the tissue to become inflamed. The protective covering (called “myelin”) of the nerves is damaged, and over time the nerve cells may also become damaged. As a result, messages from the brain and spinal cord going to other parts of the body may be delayed or have trouble reaching their destination, causing symptoms of MS.
The onset of MS symptoms typically happens between the ages of 20 and 40. While some symptoms come and go, others may linger, substantiating the unpredictability of the disease. Triggered by stress, body temperature and other factors, symptoms will vary from person to person and may include the following:
Tingling or numbness in arms or legs
Partial or complete loss of vision, usually in one eye at a time, often with pain during eye movement; double vision or blurriness
Electric-shock sensations when moving the head in certain ways
Imbalance, tremor or lack of coordination; slurred speech; muscle fatigue or dizziness
Problems with bowel and bladder function
As the disease progresses, other symptoms may include deteriorating thought process, general fatigue and possible sexual disturbances.
Who Gets MS?
Studies have connected certain viruses with an increased risk of developing MS. One in particular is the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), which causes mononucleosis. Women are twice as likely as men to develop MS, and over the last 50 years the gender difference has been increasing. All ethnic groups are at risk for getting MS, but it is more common in Caucasians. While studies suggest that genetic risk factors increase the likelihood of developing MS, there is no evidence that the disease is directly inherited. Smoking and lack of vitamin D have also been shown to increase the risk of MS. One study in 2013 suggested that babies born in May have significantly lower levels of vitamin D and are at much greater risk for developing MS than babies born in November.
Because people experience various symptoms, MS is very hard to diagnose. Doctors may mistake the symptoms of MS for other diseases, and because there is no exact way to test for it, MS can take awhile to confirm. Although there is no cure for MS, it is not considered a fatal or contagious disease. Most people with MS have a normal life expectancy and many challenges are preventable or manageable.
Moving Forward with MS
Currently, there are 15 therapies for treating and managing MS, while more and more very promising treatments are in development. To ensure a better quality of life, individuals with the disease should take basic steps.
Educate yourself and your loved ones about the disease, treatments and symptoms. Take help where needed. Create a support network of family and friends and use resources such as the National MS Society, the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, Community Internet boards and other community services to be a guide.
Know your body. Everyone is different when it comes to MS. Know how and why your symptoms begin and if they are triggered by certain things you do.
Plan your day according to how you feel. If you have more energy in the morning, get the most difficult chores or work out of the way first.
Prepare for the unpredictable. Think of alternatives for everyday activities in case your symptoms flare or you have a relapse.
Do for others. Sign up to be an activist for the rights of the disabled, join a self help group or start one of your own.
Lead a healthy lifestyle. Exercise, nutritious food and sleep make MS symptoms more manageable.
Although no one can say with any certainty just how MS is likely to behave over time, the possibilities for new and effective treatments have never been higher. And although the unpredictability still lingers, the fight to live life to its fullest is a battle that can be won. HLM
Sources: mymsaa.org, nationalmssociety.org and everydayhealth.com.